Saturday, September 09, 2006

Formal? Yes, formal...

So here's the detailed account of my first night out with Koreans.

Started off at a restaurant where we ate twaeji-galbi which is marinated pork ribs cooked over an open flame at your table. I'm not sure what was burning in the "BBQ" but it looked like some sort of wood.

The meal began with pork, a carved out log filled with vegetables (mainly lettuces), kimchi soup, a few dipping sauces, a few large bowls of onions and a small individual bowls of brown liquid. You put the onions in the brown liquid and take some pork and put it in this bowl. It helps the meat cool and then you grab a mouthful of onions and the meat and shove it in your mouth. I was shocked at how good it was. The onions lost some of their intensity in the liquid and the taste combined with the meat was delicious.

Once all the meat was eaten from the grill, the waitress bring out more, puts it on the grill, and lets you cook it. She also brought out individual bowls of white rice. When the meat is about halfway cooked she comes out again with a pair of kitchen scissors (maybe the most underused kitchen utensil in the West) and cuts up the meat into bite-sized pieces.

The next time the meat runs out she of course brings out more, and this time removes the foil wrapped sweet potatoes that have been cooking in the grills. Then she brings out one more pass of meat and with it a few more dishes. One was a cold pasta dish with ice and the other was some sort of traditional Korean soup that Mr. Han told wasn’t spicy, but I don’t think they have any concept of what spicy means to a Westerner. These dishes were alright but I was quite focused on the pork, wrapping it up in lettuce, adding some red hot sauce, and topping the mix with a piece of straight garlic. I want to eat this meal everyday. Luckily, I’m meeting with some of the English teachers I met at orientation and I think the plan is to go out and eat this stuff.

I’m stoked (look at all that food?!).

Mr. Han, the physical education teacher at my school, was running the show and putting me on the spot, all in good fun. He was the oldest male there so it’s just natural for him to take command. “Richard, you must take a picture of all of these girls and go home tonight and make decision. Then propose!” “Um, sorry Mr. Han but it would be impossible to choose only one.” The girls seemed to like this answer and it created a mass giggle fest. I find it funny when Korean girls laugh because well, it’s totally how one would expect a bunch of Korean girls to laugh. It fits right in with the stereotype and it’s so cute.

Turns out Mr. Han is married and has a child, so I don’t really know what he was doing with the “Young Men’s and Women’s Club” (remember, this is all the non-married teachers). Maybe he was there to make sure everyone treated me good and to make sure things went smoothly, which they did.

He kept trying to force everyone at dinner to speak English to me but most people were too embarrassed. They all studied English in school and university but the focus is on grammar, reading, and writing. They don’t never really get a chance to speak it so they are quite hesitant to say anything.

We left the restaurant and went down the road a few blocks to a bar called Mad Dogs. A few of the girls went home at this point so the group became a little easier to talk with. Two of the girls who stayed spoke decent English once they had a couple of beer in their bellies, and they happened to be the cutest ones as well!

This bar was very western, with wooden bulldog statues outside the door, Heineken posters on the wall, pictures of cowboys, wooden Native American “posters,” and some American pioneer photos to top it all off. It was kinda confusing but the bar was quite nice.

When we ordered our first jug of beer the waitress brought out a big fruit plate. At many bars here, you have to order a side dish of food in order to sit and drink. This fruit plate cost nearly 15 bucks! But Koreans usually eat while they drink so this is totally normal for them.

When I would go out to use the bathroom I would come back and my seat would be moved. Mr. Han wanted to make sure all the girls had a chance to talk to me. Great move and I was starting to understand why he is out with us even though he was married.

I got my first taste of some of the usual Korean customs that evening. You never pour yourself a glass of booze. Never. When your glass is empty the person next to you fills it up. You hold the cup and he/she pours. An older person older person is not supposed to pour for a younger person, and if they do, the younger person bows his head and hold the cup differently than they would if receiving a drink from someone their own age or younger than them self.

We were at Mad Dogs for a little over an hour or so and then it was time to go again. I was just starting to settle in and the girls were beginning to talk at ease. Now Mr. Hans lead didn’t make sense to me again, but my male co-teacher, Dong-Sik, told me that this was considered a “formal” meeting and women aren’t supposed to drink much at such a gathering. It didn’t seem very formal to me but I suppose everyone involved was school staff.

I didn’t know what the deal was as the girls left to go home and the other 3 male teachers and myself stood on the sidewalk. That’s when Mr. Han (remember he’s the gym teacher) said “Do you want to go play basketball?”

I looked at the other 2 guys and we kinda looked at each with a confused look and said sure. I didn’t know if Mr. Han was serious but he was! We walked to a nearby park, Dong-Sik hopped on Mr. Han’s bike to go home and change, and I was stuck there in my nice teacher clothes and dress shoes. When Dong-Sik returned he had forgot to get a basketball! You gotta remember we all had drunk a few beers by now and this was quite funny. Because Dong-Sik was the youngest Korean, he was the one who had to go ask a group of kids if we could use their ball.

The mother came over and said we could use it for 5 minutes. Dong-Sik and I were on a team and we lost the game 2-1. The score was tied at 1-1 when we had to declare that the next basket wins. Before, this declaration, Mr. Han said “stop” while I had the ball. I took a shot (after he called time); he got the ball and then declared whoever scored next was the winner. The sneaky guy weaseled my team out of possession and then they scored on the first shot.
Drunken basketball is not my forte the next time we play, Mr. Han and his team and going down!

We gave the ball back to the kids and 5 minutes later we were playing again, this time full court with the kids. My fellow teachers were playing all out and the kids were never even touching the ball. Whenever I’d get the ball I’d try to get the kids involved and at least make them feel like they were playing, even if they would just throw the ball right back to me (or just throw it away!). It was soon declared by Mr. Han that the next basket won and then I declared that one of the kids had to score the point. Everyone agreed and now Mr. Han was forced to pass the ball to his under 15 teammates.

When I played basketball in school, I always saw myself as a true point guard and this was justified tonight. I ran up the court with the ball, passed off to the wing, got he ball back on top, and quickly shuttled it inside where my 12 year old teammate hit the 7 foot jumper! Teamwork wins games boys and girls. That’s the lesson of the evening.

And guess what? That wasn’t the end of the b-ball. A few adult Koreans showed up with a ball and in less than 3 minutes we had a game lined up. These guys were decent players and we had a good game, which we won 3-2. I scored the last 2 points for my team when I decided I had to take this game into my own hands and end it because I was getting all sweaty and my feet were hurting because of my dress shoes. The guys we played against were good sports and everyone admitted to all of their fouls and clapped when the opposing team scored. I’ll definitely be playing more basketball here in Korea.

Our next stop was this little beer place/fried chicken shop about 15 a minute walk from my place. It was tucked away and was one of Mr. Han’s usual spots. His apartment was in the building right behind this place. We had a few beers, talked about history and how the winner always gets to write the story. Koreans are quite sensitive to their history because they’ve been tossed around by China and Japan so many times that they feel like outsiders might think they’re wimps or something. I dunno. It’s hard to explain.

At this point Mr. Han had to go home and the other 2 guys were just gonna go home too. I pulled the “new guy in Korea” card and said I wanted to go somewhere and drink some soju. I said I heard Koreans can really drink and tonight didn’t prove that to me up to that point. I tried to explain to Mr. Han that he could go home with his family but he felt obligated to stay out. Dong-Sik said there’s a word in Korean that means “helping someone out in a difficult situation” and Mr. Han had to oblige by this code, or honor, or whatever it is.

We went to another tucked away little restaurant, ordered some soju and side orders. Bacon-wrapped mushrooms and a big bowl of soup arrived promptly at our table and the soju quickly followed. We all ate the soup outta the same bowl and they asked if I was okay with this. I was, and even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have felt like being a germ fearing wussy.

My little brother, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been able to handle this. He won’t even have a taste of drink from me, my mom or my dad. If I was thirsty enough I would drink from a stranger’s cup, and I’m sure I have at some point or another.

So we got into the soju and I learned some more Korean drinking customs.

When pouring soju, there are a few more rules. Drinks are usually poured into shot glasses and the pourer is supposed to leave about half a cm unfilled at the top. If your cup is overfilled, you can switch shots with the pourer if his glass is properly filled. There are probably some age conventions to go along with this but I don’t remember them.

If pouring soju for an older person, you hold the bottle with one hand and make sure this hand covers up the label. You support your pouring arm with your other hand at the elbow.

Anyway, we played a few drinking games that I’m not gonna explain here because I’m too lazy but the Koreans were all impressed at my ability to hold my own on the soju field. I honestly think they were in worse states than me. They kept saying “You a very good drinking Richard!” And I would answer “Newfoundland has the best drinkers in Canada.” And I was the one speeding up the games and talking them into getting more bottles brought to our table. One of the teachers agreed about the Newfoundland drinking powers because he had actually been to St. Johns for a wedding a few years back. Small friggin’ world hey! It’s funny to hear a Korean shout “Black Horse!!”

Halfway through our time at this place Mr. Han left saying he had to go home with his family. Yeah, yeah, yeah Mr. Han. You just can’t keep up with the Newfs, that’s all. That ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.

So anyway, I survived my first outing with the locals and I know I can hold my own with them. I’m sure this wasn’t Korean drinking at it’s hardest but we definitely weren’t taking it easy.
Tonight I go to Korea’s Hollywood, the Gangnom district, and it should be a blast. It’ll be good to hear the other English teacher’s opinions on their schools and neighborhoods etc.

Maybe I’ll run into Seo-tai-ji down there.

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